May 09, 2021 Last Updated 7:04 AM, May 7, 2021

The Pacific Islands News Association has paid tribute to media workers covering the COVID-19 pandemic, recognising their commitment and the “great sacrifice” they have made.           

In a statement made to mark 2021 World Press Freedom Day today, PINA notes that while “our health workers have been rightfully recognised as ‘frontliners’ in the fight against COVID19, the critical frontline efforts of our media workers in bringing much-needed information and news to our people has been largely forgotten.” 

“Much like our health sector colleagues, our media workers go about their daily work, also at high personal risk and exposure to this virus, but with the unwavering desire to inform and educate our people,” PINA says.

PINA President Kora Nou urges governments to vaccinate journalists “to ensure they can continue to work without having to fear for their health and their lives.”

Meanwhile, the Pacific Anti-Corruption Journalists Network (PACJN) has called for a regional Pacific commitment to boost media freedom.  

"Pacific journalists need stronger Right to Information legislation and whistleblower protection so their daily work can better target the diversion of state and private sector funds into corrupt hands," said PACJN Coordinator (and Islands Business Publisher), Samisoni Pareti.

"Our journalists have worked hard to get governments to host more regular media conferences during the onset of COVID so not only misinformation, but real procurement problems can be addressed quickly.

"But journalists need to be able to rely on their own independent reporting, without fear or favour, not just media conferences," Pareti says.

In Fiji, National Federation Party General Secretary Seni Nabou said: “Fiji owes those who promote independent and impartial news, our immense thanks. They are doing a remarkable job given that Fiji has only selective media freedom.”

“While the Government may have concerns about Covid rumours slowing down its vaccination rollout plans, as a matter of principle, we must all uphold the freedom to "to seek, receive and impart information, knowledge and ideas", as well as the freedom from "scientific or medical treatment or procedures without an order of the court or without his or her informed consent", as promoted in their 2013 Constitution,” Nabou said.

“Fiji will only enjoy absolute media freedom with the repeal of the draconian Media Industry Development Act, first legislated as a Decree in 2010,” Nabou says, pledging to repeal the Act. “This will have to be done as a matter of priority by the next government.  And we will do it.”

Press Freedom Index raises concerns over Pacific developments

The  2021 World Press Freedom Index compiled by Reporters Without Borders (RSF) shows that “journalism, the main vaccine against disinformation, is completely or partly blocked in 73% of the 180 countries ranked by the organisation.” The Index rates New Zealand as the 8th  most free nation in  (Norway is in first place). Samoa is ranked at 21, Australia at 25, Tonga at 46, Papua New Guinea at 47, Fiji at 55 and Timor Leste at 71. Other Pacific Island nations are not ranked.

Reporting on Samoa, RSF says:  “In a sign of further decline in the situation in 2020, the prime minister threatened to ban Facebook and personally brought a defamation suit against a blogger whose comments he did not like.”

On Tonga, RSF noted years of tension between government and media and stated: “Pohiva Tu’i’onetoa, who became prime minister in October 2019, must put a stop to the pressure and meddling and ensure that journalists enjoy full editorial independence.

RSF says in Papua New Guinea: “The installation of… James Marape, as prime minister in May 2019 was seen as an encouraging development for the prospects of greater media independence. Journalists were disillusioned in April 2020 when the police minister called for two reporters to be fired for their “misleading” coverage of the Covid-19 crisis. In addition to political pressure, journalists continue to be dependent on the concerns of those who own their media. This is particularly so at the two main dailies, The Post Courier, owned by Australian media tycoon Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp, which is above all focused on commercial and financial concerns, and The National, owned by the Malaysian logging multinational Rimbunan Hijau, which doesn’t want its journalists to take too much interest in environmental issues. As a rule, the lack of funding and material resources for proper investigative journalism and reporting in the field has tended to encourage “copy-and-paste” journalism. So the efforts undertaken by the commercial TV channel EMTV News to practice and promote investigative reporting are encouraging. Social media are meanwhile developing rapidly but the advent of Facebook has led to the creation of many politically-affiliated accounts that focus on spreading disinformation and attacking independent journalists. Reporters continue to be prevented from covering the fate of asylum-seekers held in Australia’s migrant detention centres on Papua New Guinea’s Manus Island and in the capital, Port Moresby.”

RSF says in Fiji: “The sedition laws, with penalties of up to seven years in prison, are also used to foster a climate of fear and self-censorship. Sedition charges poisoned the lives of three journalists with the Fiji Times, the leading daily, until they were finally acquitted in 2018. It was the price the newspaper paid for its independence, many observers thought. The newspaper’s distribution was banned in several parts of the archipelago at the start of the Covid-19 pandemic in March 2020 because – the government said – the press was not an essential service. The pro-government Fiji Sun was nonetheless distributed with complete normality in the same areas.”

Remembering Pacific journalists

PINA has also used the day to salute five media workers for their “tireless and immense contribution to the Pacific media fraternity.”

  • Ricky Binihi, a well-known investigative journalist in Vanuatu, with over four decades of journalism experience, working with Vanuatu Broadcasting & Television Corporation (VBTC), Vanuatu Daily Post and the Vanuatu Weekly. He was one the pioneers of journalism in Vanuatu after independence in the 80’s. He died in January this year.
  • Glenda Popot, was heavily involved in the development of the electronic media, especially EMTV in Papua New Guinea. She worked with FM100 as its Editor before her death,
  • Alphonse Muapi, worked with the national broadcaster in Papua New Guinea, NBC before joining the Electoral Commission. He was considered an asset and bridge between the media and the Commission, during the conduct of PNG’s most immediate past two national general elections.
  • Maepeza Wickham, an experienced videographer in Solomon Islands. In a tribute from MASI President, “The loss of Peza is felt by many in the media fraternity in Solomon Islands for the many contributions he’s made to the media industry.”
  • Poliakepo Kefu – the Secretary of the Media Association of Tonga (MAT). The president of MAT, Ramanlal Vallabh said Kefu was an active member and supportive member of MAT and his demise is a huge loss to the media family in the island kingdom.

Islands Business correspondent Nic Maclellan has been awarded the Sean Dorney Grant for Pacific journalism for 2020.

Established by the Walkley Foundation, the Sean Dorney Grant for Pacific Journalism aims to encourage more and better journalism about the Pacific Islands region by Australian media professionals and news outlets.

Making the announcement this week, the Foundation said judges were so impressed with the quality of the applications this year that they decided to award grants of $10,000 each to two deserving recipients, Maclellan and Jo Chander.

Maclellan will use the grant to report on  "France and Pacific self-determination during the COVID crisis"

 The judges were excited by Nic Maclellan's proposal to examine the dynamic relationships between Australia, France and the Pacific in the context of anxiety about growing Chinese influence. His proposal to focus on the perspectives of the Kanak and Maohi peoples – including strong independence movements – in an environment where Australia is increasingly working in partnership with France raises a fascinating set of issues which will play out as New Caledonia heads towards another self-determination referendum and the region recovers from Covid-19.

“Nic is a tremendously experienced and insightful journalist, and Islands Business is very proud to regularly feature his reports and analysis of our region's key political issues. The decision  to award him the grant is well-deserved, and a testament to the quality of his reporting, and the experience he brings to his subject matter,” said Islands Business Managing Editor, Samantha Magick.

The applications were judged by Sean Dorney, Former Pacific Correspondent, ABC, Sue Ahearn, Journalist and Consultant, Michael Bachelard, Walkley Judging Board and Investigations Editor, The Age, Jemima Garrett, Freelance Journalist specialising in the Pacific and Alexander Rheeney, Co Editor, Samoa Observer.

Click through to read some of Nic's most recent stories:

French Prosecutor pursues Temaru (June 2020)

FLNKS demands strict border controls (May 2020)

Pathway across the Pacific (April 2020)

Indepth: Pacific Islands Forum Secretary General Meg Taylor (April 2020)

Gaining credits for Kyoto (March 2020)

Throwing coal on the fire (Jan 2020)

McGarry barred from Vanuatu

Vanuatu Daily Post journalist Dan McGarry has been stopped from re-entering the country by Vanuatu immigration officials.

McGarry was until recently, the Media Director for the Daily Post. However the government earlier this month refused to approve his annual work permit renewal. He says this is due to the newspaper’s coverage of Vanuatu’s relationship with China.

Originally from Canada, McGarry is in the process of applying for dual Vanuatu citizenship.

He had been in Brisbane, Australia for a week with his partner. But when they tried to check in for a flight back to Port Vila on Saturday, they were told that Vanuatu Immigration had issued a notice barring the airline from uplifting him. His partner had to return home to their two children alone.

“Repeated attempts to obtain a copy of Vanuatu Immigration’s letter to the airlines were unsuccessful,” McGarry says. “How can I comply with Immigration’s demands if they won’t tell me what I need to do? I feel like a character in Catch 22.”

 “They’re doing what every guilty-minded government does when faced with inconvenient facts: they’d rather shut me up—and shut me out—than engage honestly with the public about the stories we report.”

Last week in a broad-ranging statement about the state of media freedoms and threats in the Pacific, the Melanesia Media Freedom Forum called on the Vanuatu government to uphold the appeal of the Daily Post against the rejection of McGarry’s work permit.

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IB April 2021 frontcover

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